Sébastien Cliche,« Accidents de la vie courante », 2003. Sébastien Cliche, série | series Refuges, 2006.
photo : © Sébastien Cliche

That thing we feel as our own—and that we therefore dread all the more—, is very ­precisely fear. It is of our fear that we are afraid, of the possibility that this fear is ours, that it is in our very selves that we are ­fearful.

Roberto Esposito1 1 - Roberto Esposito, Communitas. Origine et destin de la communauté (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, Collège International de Philosophie, 2000), 36.

For a while now, the phenomenon of fear has mainly been dealt with from a political perspective. As an exploitable human emotion, fear is then associated with issues of power. In the name of security, what Amnesty International calls “the politics of fear” becomes a strategy to justify ­controls that can lead to abuse. Understandably then, as political ­scientist Robin Corey argues in a recent book,2 2 - Robin Corey, Fear: The History of a Political Idea (New York & London: Oxford University Press, 2006). one must combat fear. As a major instrument of domination, Corey says, fear is a purely negative emotion that paralyses our capacity for judgement. Certainly, from a political point of view, fear can prompt negative reactions or tear at the social fabric in a community. Also, not only can it lead to the ­subjugation of an individual, but, under a terror regime, it can become a ­collective frame of mind.3 3 - In Peur, dit le spectre (http://multitudes.samizdat.net/spip.php?article2241), ­published online on February 10, 2007, Brian Massumi examines the “politicization of fear” orchestrated by the Bush Administration after September 11, 2001. Notwithstanding these considerations, however ­effectively the psychological interpretation may explain the effects of fear on a targeted population, one cannot reduce the sense of fear, as Corey does, to a “political idea.” Like boredom, sadness, or joy, fear is first an emotion, thoroughly grounded in human subjectivity, a basic manifestation of our emotional connection to the world. It allows us to see and to feel, unthinkingly and for a moment, the formidable, menacing, even terrifying fact of the world. That is why, as an emotion that affects our way of being, fear becomes worthy material for many authors who attempt to render it in words. Since the advent of cinema, fear is also felt vicariously through image and sound in narrative sequences composed to produce an atmosphere of dread.

But what of the visual arts? Are we limited to representation, as in sculpture and painting? In the latter case, Edvard Munch’s The Scream is probably one of the more effective renditions of fear on a horrified human face; but one could also look to fantastic painting, some works of which suggest the idea of a death that we must dread.4 4 - One might think of Johann Heinrich Füssli’s The Nightmare, or of the works of Gustave Doré, The Enigma in particular. Also, in view of later considerations, one should point out that Doré illustrated many children’s tales, including The Little Red Riding Hood. Yet, when one tries to offer spectators devices other than representation for interrogating the real, rendering the phenomenon of fear is no simple matter. Of course, one might wish to attempt a critique of “the politics of fear” by various means, as some artists successfully do;5 5 - A group exhibition with the theme La culture de la peur / The Culture of Fear that took place in Leipzig, Germany, in summer 2006, at the Federkiel Foundation, indeed presented works dealing with the perception of fear in our societies. Among the artists were Mandy Gehrt, Maria Friberg, and the Yes Men collective. in an entirely different vein, one might also want to approach fear exclusively as affect. But then one must be wary of how one aestheticizes the emotion. On an aesthetic level, the mood emanating from this fear must avoid maudlin sentiment and rather strive for a particular “tone”—a Stimmung Heidegger might have said—from which a relationship with the ambient world might be felt. Concerned with the social dimension of fear, Sébastien Cliche, in his multidisciplinary work, attempts to create revelatory moods that disclose various reactions to it. While referring to certain literary texts, I propose to examine what Cliche’s work has to tell us of the phenomenon of fear, especially when that phenomenon is closely connected to our shared sense of existence.

Sébastien Cliche, série | series Refuges, 2006.
photos : © Sébastien Cliche

the world that helps instantly transform our apprehension of things and of others. As a wholly gripping experience, the affect of fear is then an integral part of what it means to be alive, to exist. Fear, then, is hardly an accident that we can be rid of. Before being a “thinking thing,” as Descartes says, man is an emotional being. And to believe Joseph Conrad, in his Heart of Darkness, as an emotion, fear would seem to have priority. One may always deny love, faith, hate, and even doubt, but as long a human being wishes to remain alive, fear will not be denied. Fear and life are forever entwined. At the very end of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, for instance, when her husband poses the question inscribed in the title, and Martha replies, “I am . . . George . . . I am,” it is because this fear confirms the realization of the couple’s powerlessness to create anything together.6 6 - Written by Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? appeared in 1962. The play was adapted to the screen by Mike Nichols (Warner Bros. Pictures, 1966, 131 min). For, despite the explicit allusion, the title refers less to the famous English writer than it does to a children’s song about the big bad wolf. But in this story of a raging argument between spouses, what feeds the fear isn’t the danger of a ferocious beast so much as the distress of one who, faced with life, feels utterly at a loss. The same troubling mood haunts the main character in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film Fear of Fear. Expectant with a second child, Margot Staudte also comes to experience a strange and mysterious situation in which she feels suddenly “out of tune” with the things and people close to her.7 7 - This film was produced for television by WDR (1975, 88 min).

In short, fear cannot be dislodged, unless one accepts to forgo life, like the Kamikazes who, on ideological grounds, conquered the ultimate fear, that of dying. Otherwise, death menaces the living being with its annihilation. Existentialist phenomenology, as we know, has made this its leitmotif. According to Heidegger, being-for-death is life’s very concern. Fear becomes our anguish for the sake of the life that is given us. Besides, fear of death distinguishes us from animals. While the animal lives only in the present, man can foresee the threat, the danger, can imagine his own disappearance. In short, human beings have the capacity for frightening themselves. Sensory human existence isn’t just physical, it is also part imagination. In other words, the emotion is also self-emotive. Indeed, man has the ability to be stirred by his own devices—de s’émouvoir—, which, on an aesthetic level, can also afford pleasure.

Cliche stages our fear of death, fuelled by its anticipation, in an installation titled DisastAir.8 8 - DisastAir was presented in two parts, first in 1998, at Galerie Verticale, Laval, then in 1999, at Espace Vidéographe, Montreal. All the works discussed in this article are presented on the artist’s Web site, available at www.aplacewhereyoufeelsafe.com. In the form of a parody, it reminds spectators of the horror of experiencing a plane crash. What can one do then, if not give up and let the irremediable take its course? Relying on drawings inspired by survival guides, a video, and texts that somewhat humorously remind us to let go, the installation shows how little control we have over the course of events in such fateful circumstances. We can no longer control anything but our attitude toward ourselves. Fear, though, is often connected to the unknown. Fear is fear of oneself before that which one does not understand. In the borderline area between that which we fear and anguish before the void, is the feeling of being isolated from the world of others. Yet, even in these circumstances, the “I” is never totally alone. The fear “that we feel as ourselves” is also foreign to us. It is, as Roberto Esposito points out, “our ‘other,’ which constitutes us as a subject infinitely separated from ourselves.”9 9 - Esposito, 39.

Sébastien Cliche, Principes de gravité, 2007.
photos : © Sébastien Cliche

Several of Cliche’s works also explore the difficulties of life in society. In an exhibition cycle presented in 2002-3 with the general title “L’Existence simplifiée”, and made up of three installations—Vivre blessé [“living wounded”], La Réserve / Utility Room, and Accidents de la vie courante / A Place Where You Feel Safe—the artist emphasizes the need for security generated by our anxiety in the face of fear. Using mainly text and images, he examines our “desire to live without accidents.” Even within the banality of everyday life, fears of all kinds can develop into various pathologies. In an obviously ironic treatment based on the image of home, Cliche disrupts the border line that is supposed to separate the outside from the inside, the private from the public, the inner from the outer. In its modern context, the home is thought of as “a place where you feel safe.” In these exhibitions, however, it comes to signify a malaise. The ambient space of the household absorbs our obsessions with security. Especially when we are obsessed with perfectly controlling our everyday surroundings.

et, this desire for overprotection, spurred on by consumer society, renders us still more fragile. Fear will not be forgotten. Like any truth that wants to hide, it remains present. In these three installations, it shows up in several figures—male and female—wearing balaclavas, or hoods. Where, in Vanitas, the human skull represents our mortal being, here the masked figures symbolize the visceral fear that we project on each other. The other is an alter ego who threatens my peace of mind, making me fear the worst, destroying sought-for harmony in the community. Is man, Thomas Hobbes asks, not a wolf to his fellow man?

The series of photographs presented in 2006 and titled “Refuges” also concerns the desire for security prompted by fear. The photographs are imbued with a strange visual atmosphere. One sees a cabin, for instance, made of planks and covered with a tarp, facing a cliff on the edge of a forest; there’s also a night scene within a forest, and a kind of shelter set in the woods where one might think an individual lives in seclusion. The forest, when apparently wild, can elicit fear. It is the natural habitat of animals, some of them fierce. In our imagination, the forest lies on the frontier of the domestic and the fantastic; between plant and animal life and the rather artificial domain of human beings. Already, in a previous exhibition, “La vie en forêt”, Cliche had drawn attention to the fear of finding oneself in this unfamiliar world, alone with a survival kit. In “Refuges”, though, the forest is mainly considered a source of comfort. According to Jean-Paul Sartre, the refuge is one possible response to a world from which we wish to escape.10 10 - Jean-Paul Sartre, Esquisse d’une théorie des émotions (Paris: Hermann, 1975), 45-47. Taking shelter is then one of the reactions we develop in the face of fear. The titles accompanying the works could not be clearer in this respect: We derive greater satisfaction from suffering our defeats alone, Mistrust is all that you need to maintain good human relationships, and In solitude there is no betrayal. But this refuge in willing solitude is obviously also an evasion. It is a type of behaviour that gives us a temporary sense of security. In other words, this evasion issues from a consciousness that fervently wishes that solitude may allay one’s fear. The statements forming the titles in the “Refuges” photographs suggest a solipsist vision of our rapport with others. But do they really lead to no other conclusion?

Sébastien Cliche, série | series « Refuges », 2006.  
photos : © Sébastien Cliche

First, one should know that the aphorisms serving as titles to these photographs are derived from work developed during a residency at Chambre Blanche (Quebec City), which resulted in an on-line virtual book titled Principes de gravité.11 11 - This work was presented in winter 2007, at Galerie de l’UQAM, as part of the group exhibition titled “Basculer”, curated by Julie Bélisle, Mélanie Boucher, and Audrey Genois. The work may be viewed online at: www.gravityprinciples.ca. In the table of contents, reader-­spectators find six chapters. One of these, the last, is “Vie en société.” To read this chapter, we must make choices. In the preface, we were already warned that the founding principle of the book is that the upshot of making choices was to accept “losing something”—another aphoristic piece of advice. As in most of Cliche’s work where text is as significant as visual presentation, such aphorisms express precepts that urge us to confront life. But one must add that these lessons tend to come with paradoxes. With respect to the theme of fear and to the ­resulting mistrust or desire for solitude, this chapter also warns us that “the group is a necessary evil,” or that “failing within a group is reassuring.”

In short, “Vie en société” proposes a kind of redemptive mistrust vis-à-vis the other. However one might withdraw into magical attitudes, fear of the other is here to stay. Consequently, we had better practice the courage of being afraid or, as the title of Fassbinder’s play reminds us, the fear within will devour the soul.12 12 - Rainer Werner Fassbinder, La peur dévore l’âme (Paris: L’Arche, 1992); the film’s original title, Angst essen Seele auf, translated in English as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. Indeed, fear only destroys us if we react negatively through flight and consequently attempt to ­construct an identity based on exclusion. We cannot vanquish fear through ­exclusion. One can only wish to flee or forget it, which does not prevent it from existing. When night falls, in Bernard-Marie Koltès’ wonderful text, Dans la solitude des champs de coton, two characters—the dealer and the ­client—begin a riveting dialogue on the rapport two people can have when it takes shape between desire and the fear of knowing what the other, as stranger, may bring to us.13 13 - Bernard-Marie Koltès, Dans la solitude des champs de coton (Paris: Minuit, 1986). Each is then confronted with their own fear, with their own desire for the unknown, especially when aware that each of us is capable of extinguishing the other’s existence.

It was Hobbes’ great insight to place fear at the heart of human ­sociability. Like the fact of living, fear is what we have in common. One may want to exploit it politically, or to supplant it, as the philosopher urges, with voluntary submission to the Monarch and life under stringent laws; but as affect, one can not completely master it. That is why fear has been such an inspiration to artists: it explains so many things about the ­fragile beings that we are. The work of Sébastien Cliche is an example. In his various installations, he shows the effects of fear in our modern societies, and their penchant for security; he recalls the painful relationships that fear engenders within communities. But, at the same time, from a strictly aesthetic point of view, he wishes to place the spectator in an ambiguous situation. For instance, the photographs in “Refuges” might well convey a “heavy emotional charge,” but the artist also points out that they cultivate “ambiguity before an unresolved situation,” as if it were better to ask spectators to do more than simply to be moved. Just the advice one might take if one wished to practice the courage of being afraid.

[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]

This article also appears in the issue 62 - Fear II

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